LT William Hughes started his Athena pitch by taking the iPhone out of his pocket.
“If I can have an app on this thing that can recognize stars in the night sky,” Hughes, the Navigator onboard the guided missile destroyer BENFOLD began, “Then why can’t I have the same on my ship?”
The crowd at Modern Times brewery for last October’s Waterfront Athena Event agreed, voting LT Hughes’ CosmoGator project second overall.
In his pitch, Hughes argued that, due to the proliferation of Global Positioning System (GPS) jamming technology and the development of anti-satellite weapons, there is a good chance that any future conflicts will develop in a GPS denied environment. And with technological capabilities developing at an exponential rate the Navy, with its plethora of high tech platforms and weapons that depend on GPS, must guarantee the ability to execute missions without it. Hughes found that celestial navigation could be the answer – And it’s been around for hundreds of years.
Traditional celestial navigation involves sight planning, shooting lines of position, followed by sight reductions. This process has been improved upon with the advent of computers and a program called STELLA (System to Estimate Latitude and Longitude Astronomically), however, it still requires a sailor to take a sextant and attempt to derive lines of position from a small number a stars against a backdrop of millions, often under less than ideal sea states and weather conditions.
Although surface combatants have Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) to serve as back-ups to GPS, the accuracy of those systems cannot be guaranteed for extended periods of time. CosmoGator is an automated celestial navigation system that will interface with existing ship systems to maintain safety of navigation and provide position inputs to ship subsystems.
CosmoGator is a multi-part system comprised of a gyro-stabilized and actuated camera and a software tie in to existing navigation computers. Ephemeral data from existing systems, such as STELLA, would be used to plan sights and to slew the camera to the exact point in the sky. The automated camera would be able to slew to exactly where planned stars are in the sky, take steady, accurate measurements beyond the tenth degree that the standard marine sextant can give. This LOP data would then be fed back into the navigation computers and converted to a lattitude and longitude for use by various ship systems., and populated out to ship systems. Position data from CosmoGator would be used as an input into to reset INS, align antennas for Satellite Communications and programmed into combat systems that require precise position inputs.
While the concept is quite simple, there are many dots that require connecting.
Take a minute to imagine this scenario: USS WARSHIP is steaming towards a launch point for a strike mission against country Orange. Orange uses its anti-satellite capabilities and local GPS jamming equipment to effectively black out the figure of merit 1 navigation data WARSHIP is used to receiving. Upon the loss of GPS, WARSHIP’s navigation systems automatically kick over to the INS, which is guaranteed to be accurate for up to 48 hours, but WARSHIP is still 3 days from station. That night, the ship’s automated celestial navigation system, over the course of just a few minutes, takes several accurate lines of position from the stars and planets and determines the ship’s position with an error of ≤ 25 meters.
That fix, with the same accuracy of GPS, is simultaneously fed to both the navigation display on the bridge and in Combat information Center, but also back into INS to re-start the 48 hour accuracy countdown. This process would repeat every single night until GPS was restored. Upon arrival at the launch point, the ship can use INS to input the Tomahawks’ start point and successfully execute its mission.
CosmoGator placed second overall at the October 2013 Waterfront Athena. In the weeks and months that have followed, the project hasn’t died. CosmoGator was subsequently picked up by the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) as a project for their next round of ideas, opening up avenues with the Office of Naval Research and the Navy Warfare Development Command.
In January, at SPAWAR’s “Learn the Warfighters’ Needs” workshops in Point Loma, CosmoGator gained traction with several engineers and physicists who are working to answer the question of precision navigation and timing (PNT) in a GPS denied environment.
The Department of Defense had previously shelved a shore-based project called DayStar that aimed to accomplish many of the same objectives as CosmoGator but lacked the requisite technology. Since this technology is now readily available, it is likely that a feasible system could easily be produced and deployed on our surface combatants. Other organizations have expressed interest as well, and the CosmoGator team is working with NASA and the Naval Postgraduate School in an ongoing effort to link similar projects, gain funding, continue research and bring CosmoGator to life.
When it comes to CosmoGator’s potential, the stars really are the limit!